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M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’S Great­est Spy­mas­ter

Henry Hem­ming (Pref­ace, £20)

This metic­u­lously re­searched bi­og­ra­phy reads like a cross be­tween a spy novel and a so­cial his­tory. Al­most ev­ery­one gets a walk-on part, from the great spy writ­ers John le carré and Derek Tangye to cam­bridge com­mu­nists and mosleyite Fas­cists. it deals with re­ally sig­nif­i­cant events—the build-up to the sec­ond World War, the con­stant threats from ex­trem­ists of the left and right and the need for con­stant vig­i­lance to avoid our democ­racy be­ing un­der­mined— but it does so in such a grip­ping and vivid way that it doesn’t feel the least bit like read­ing his­tory.

At the cen­tre of the story is the ec­cen­tric spy­mas­ter, maxwell Knight, the orig­i­nal ‘m’, whose real pas­sion in life was the menagerie of ex­otic an­i­mals he had kept and stud­ied from boy­hood, which, by the end of the book, you al­most be­lieve were role mod­els for the se­cret agents he con­trolled, guided and ma­nip­u­lated. As a child, he kept lizards, mice, rats, hedge­hogs, slow worms and a va­ri­ety of birds, with which he de­vel­oped an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing. in the 1930s, he kept a bush­baby, a par­rot, sev­eral grass snakes and a bear in his lon­don flat.

in the 1950s, Knight be­came one of the most pro­lific early broad­cast­ers on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. Along­side Peter scott and David At­ten­bor­ough, he brought wildlife to the pub­lic in panel shows such as Animal, Vegetable and Min­eral?. in be­tween, he re­cruited and ran dozens of spies, at first to in­fil­trate the Fas­cists and then the com­mu­nists, who con­stantly threat­ened Bri­tain’s se­cu­rity, bril­liantly en­cour­ag­ing them to en­dure their dan­gers and calm­ing their fears. it’s im­pos­si­ble not to con­clude that his ob­ser­va­tions of animal be­hav­iour helped him to un­der­stand and em­pathise with them.

This is a crack­ing read, which both in­forms and en­ter­tains in equal mea­sure. Robin Han­bury-teni­son

Maxwell Knight with his favourite pet, Goo the cuckoo

Olga Gray, or ‘Miss X’, the sec­re­tary who brought down a Soviet spy ring

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